A man of letters – Pádraig Ó Méalóid talks to Todd Klein
Today we have a very special treat for you – my friend and lifelong champion of good comics and books Pádraig Ó Méalóid has been very busy following up his terrific interview with Alan Moore (which can be read on the blog with part one here and part two here, if you missed it) and over the last few weeks has been talking with another legend of the ninth art, Mr Todd Klein. The work of the letterer and designer is absolutely essential in comics; perhaps it is a little ironic that a medium best known for being a sequence of visual art scenes is often held together by the writer’s words placed carefully into that art by a good letterer. And, sadly, while some writers and artists are names we come to know well it is less frequent that we celebrate the huge contribution of the letterist (or indeed the colourist and many of the others who help the writer and artist give birth to the comic we will eventually hold in our hands).
Despite that there are some who have established fine reputations, held in the same esteem by many readers as our favourite artists and writers, because their work is beyond the technical and is actually an essential part of the entire creation. Todd has garnered just such a reputation over the years, working on a vast range of comics titles, types and styles, summoning up an equally diverse array of fonts, styles and layouts to compliment those works or, in some cases, even enhance the comic – think of his many diverse speech styles for different characters throughout the Sandman, for example. The dialogue would have been Neil’s dialogue, but Todd’s unusual speech bubbles arguably gave the characters their actual ‘voice’ in much the way that a writer crafts their dialogue for a play but then the actor must invest the words with life and character. Across his career Todd has worked with the whole spectrum of writers, artists and editors, from his well known work for DC Comics to many freelance projects. We’re absolutely delighted to have him as our guest today:
PÓM: Your most recent project is the hand-written print you produced in collaboration with Neil Gaiman. This is the second one of these, after starting off with one written by Alan Moore. What I find particularly fascinating about these is that it’s effectively the same technology as making a fanzine: it’s all completely home-produced, with all the funds going to the creators, the only difference being that the creators involved are the very best there are at what they do. How did all this come about, and are there any plans for more of them?
TK: I’ve always liked the idea of producing a complete printed piece myself. I did that with my Lettering Sampler print in the 1990s, but then I had to have it printed by someone else. Now, with desktop publishing, I really can do the whole thing myself, and it’s been fun to do, and very rewarding, though a good deal of work. Of course, having the text written by Alan and Neil made them much better sellers, and that came about simply as a way to have something new to sell on my website.
(Before You Read This, a signed print of a free-form verse by Neil Gaiman (partially obscured to preserve a surprise until you see the actual print) and lettered and designed by Todd Klein, available from Todd’s site)
I thought about doing a new Lettering Sampler or similar piece, but couldn’t come up with a novel idea. Then came the idea of collaborating with some of the people in comics I’ve worked with over the years, and I thought that might do well. I approached Alan first, and he was very supportive, and came up with a terrific piece of text for the first print. Neil quickly agreed to do the second when I asked him, though he wasn’t really happy about having to follow Alan! Both prints have been much more of a success than I ever imagined, and I do plan to do more. The third one has been conceived and a partner enlisted, but I won’t release any information about it until it’s further along, except to say that this time it’s a collaboration with an artist rather than a writer.
PÓM: Were you pleased with the success of the prints? You did, what, a thousand copies of each, I believe, which must also have meant a lot of actual physical work just producing them and getting them out in the post.
TK: I was more than pleased, I was stunned. I had to scramble to get enough shipping supplies for the first printing of Alan’s, as I hadn’t expected it to sell out in a month, let alone three days! Alan’s first and second printing were each 500 copies, the second of which I have less than 100 left at the moment. Neil’s first (and so far only) printing was 1,000, and I have about 230 left at the moment. And, yes, it’s lots of work. The most time-consuming part of producing them is adding the painted element: red for the apples on Alan’s and white for the moon and candle flames on Neil’s. This took many hours. Packing and shipping also takes quite a lot of time. It’s all worth it in the end for me, both financially and in the feedback I’ve received, which has been very positive.
(Note: as of today, September 10, I have less than 30 of Alan’s prints left, and about 130 of Neil’s.)
PÓM: As I write this the San Diego Comic Con is about a week away, and you’re taking a table to sell the remainder of the prints. Is this your first time at the con in that capacity, a publisher selling your wares to the public?
TK: My first visit to the San Diego con was in 1993, and that year I applied for and was given a table in Artists’ Alley. For that con I created my Lettering Sampler print and sold some there. Optimistically, I had 500 copies printed at the time. I’m still selling them today, and will be bringing some to this year’s con. I also had an Artists’ Alley table in 1994, but after that decided just to go to the con and have fun, not sit behind a table. Artists’ Alley tables are free at San Diego, but very hard to get, there’s a waiting list. Only the fact that I’m a Special Guest of the con this year, and was offered a table on that basis, got me one. Not sure what I’ll do next year if a table there is still an option.
PÓM: To go back to the very beginning, how did you start working in comics?
TK: I was a comics reader and fan as a kid, and continued to read them into my adult years. I went to art school for two years, but not surprisingly didn’t find any work in that area. I did do some art for science fiction and comics fanzines, and a bit of writing, while working mainly for an air conditioner company designing some of their installation and parts manuals, which gave me a bit of type design and layout experience.
Early in 1977 I decided to put together a portfolio and go into New York City to knock on doors at the comics companies looking for work. I first tried Marvel, who had advertised an art director job, but as soon as I got in for an interview it became clear I wasn’t qualified for that, and in any case it was for the Cadence magazine division, not the comics. Next I tried DC, and showed my portfolio to then art director Vince Colletta. He told me I didn’t have the art chops to get work in comics as an artist, but thought my design work showed promise, and he brought me in to DC’s then Production Manager Jack Adler, where I showed my portfolio again. It was nearly summer by this time, and Jack needed someone to fill in for a vacationing employee for two weeks in July, and offered me that.
I took vacation time from my current job and worked in DC’s production department for the two weeks, doing things like pasting together letters columns and doing art corrections. At the end of the two weeks, the vacationing employee called to say he’d found another job and wouldn’t be back. Jack liked what I’d done, and offered me the job full time. I was happy to take it, and worked in DC’s Production Department for 10 years, soon picking up freelance work of various kinds there as well. Lettering seemed the best fit for me and my skills, and at the end of the first year I was getting regular freelance lettering work to do at home in the evenings in addition to my staff job.
(a sample page of art and lettering Todd created for his portfolio to show to DC when looking for work back in 1977, borrowed from Todd’s site and (c) Todd Klein)
PÓM: You did a bit of writing for DC in your time, didn’t you, especially on The Omega Men? Do you have any desire to go back to writing comics, or is that all safely tucked away in the past?
TK: Yes, I wrote for DC beginning in the late seventies through the mid eighties, the largest assignment being regular writer on The Omega Men for about a year and a half. I enjoyed it, but it was a lot harder work for me than lettering, and forced me to cut back on other freelance I would have liked to have taken. Very gratifying when finished, but sometimes a slog in the process, writing was. I doubt I’ll do any more comics writing, though I did a story adaptation for one of Neil’s short stories for Dark Horse recently over painted art by Michael Zulli, The Facts In The Case Of The Departure Of Miss Finch, published a month or two ago. That was fun, and fairly easy, as the art was all done, it just needed someone who knew comics and Neil’s work to write the copy. I do consider my website and blog my most recent writing projects, and the blog takes up my writing urge for now.
PÓM: I’m glad you mentioned your blog, as I’ll be coming back to that before the end of the interview! First, though, could you tell us a bit about how you came to find yourself doing the adaptation of Miss Finch?
TK: Dark Horse has been producing graphic adaptations of some of Neil’s stories for a number of years. The first two, Murder Mysteries and Harlequin Valentine were lettered by other people, but I was asked to letter the third one, Creatures of the Night, with painted art by Michael Zulli. Editor Diana Schutz asked me to letter the fourth one, Miss Finch a few years ago. The way this one was done (not sure about the others), Michael was given a free hand to do the art for the adaptation as he liked, then a script was written for it by one of Neil’s assistants, Olga Nunes.
Diana was not happy with that script, though, and felt it wasn’t useable. The project stalled at that point for some months. When I saw Diana in San Diego in 2007, she told me about the script problems, and I offered to do an adaptation for her. Diana asked Neil, who said sure, and I was given the go ahead. I used Olga’s script as a starting point, but drew most of my text from Neil’s original story, just expanding or changing it where necessary to work with the existing art, or letting the art tell the story where I could.
PÓM: Would you be interested in more work like that, adapting short stories for comics?
TK: Sure, if it was stories I knew and liked.
PÓM: At what point did it become apparent that you were going to be working full-time as a letterer? About what year would that have been?
TK: I was getting enough freelance lettering work by 1980 or so while on staff at DC that I could have gone freelance full-time then, but I’d seen a lot of young freelancers go that route: leaving staff as soon as they had enough work, to know I didn’t want to do that. It would have meant living from check to check, and always pursuing more work. Instead I decided to put in more years on staff and build up a small nest egg of funds that would help me through any slow work periods. Also, I was living alone at the time, and enjoyed the atmosphere of the DC offices.
In 1986 I felt I was getting close to my financial goal, and late in that year I met Ellen, and we began dating frequently. By spring of 1987 I knew it was time to make the move, and I went freelance toward the end of that summer. I had developed many friendships and good working relationships with DC, which served me well as a work source, and having Ellen’s companionship made the transition easier. I still went in to the DC offices once a week for a while to deliver work and pick up more. That ended in August of 1989 when Ellen and I married and moved to southern New Jersey, too far for an easy commute. Fortunately I’ve always had a steady flow of work from DC and elsewhere, so it worked out well for me.
(an early example of Todd’s lettering for DC, borrowed from his comprehensive website)
PÓM: You mentioned your blog earlier. You use this for a number of things, like news of your various projects, analyses of various comic book logos, and even recipes. What benefits do you think you get from doing this, either personally or professionally?
TK: Building the website was definitely a career move designed to get me more attention and exposure. The blog, on the other hand, I thought of as a way to express myself and write about things that interest me. I’ve been enjoying Neil Gaiman’s blog for years, and I wanted to do something along those lines: regular entries on a variety of subjects. It’s been good for that personally, and it turned out to be pretty good professionally as well. Things like the Logo Studies have definitely attracted more attention to me than I ever expected. The Batman Logo Study alone gets dozens of reads every day, I assume by mostly new readers each time.
PÓM: I know this is going to be a short question that’s probably going to need a long answer, but I imagine that the whole process of lettering has changed enormously from when you started?
TK: When I started in 1977 everything on the interior comics page was nearly always done by hand. Now the only parts done by hand are the pencilling and inking, and sometimes the latter is also done digitally now. That’s the main change, the gradual shift to digital lettering, which began for me in 1994 when I got my first desktop Mac. Covers usually included type before that for things like the company symbol, price and date, created optically and printed on white photostat paper, but most of the logos and cover lettering were all done by hand. Now all that is almost always done on the computer, at least at large companies like DC and Marvel. So, for my freelance work, I’ve gone from sitting all day at the drawing board to sitting all day at the computer, except for rare occasions when I use the drawing board for things like lettering Nexus by hand, doing logo sketches, or lettering my own prints.
Many of the old guard letterers railed against this change for years, and eventually were pushed out of the business. The only letterer who only works by hand who is still lettering occasionally at the major companies is John Workman, as far as I know, and he’s also doing artwork for Archie Comics. Some embraced the change eagerly, and made a career out of it, like Richard Starkings, co-founder of Comicraft. Some took to it reluctantly and half-heartedly, like Tom Orzechowski, and are still working today, but not as much as they were.
Once I started in the direction of creating my own fonts from my hand-lettering and using them on the computer, I saw it as a valuable option for me, and one I accepted and could learn from. This has proved to be good for my career, as I am still as busy as ever. And I think I have an advantage over younger letterers who only know computer lettering, and do not create their own fonts, as I have more knowledge and understanding of the lettering process and history than they do. But some of them are catching up on that background as they get further into their careers. Jared K. Fletcher, for one, seems to be going in that direction.
(examples of some of Todd’s font designs, borrowed from his extensive website and (c) Todd Klein)
PÓM: Do you still use a Mac, by the way?
TK: Yes. Currently on a G5 desktop, and just got a new Powerbook laptop as well.
PÓM: Where do your design influences come from?
TK: My favourite style is probably Art Nouveau, though I like some Art Deco, and am also very fond of the Pre-Raphaelites. (Got to use all those on the Promethea covers.) I pick up on later styles as needed depending on the assignment. I don’t think I’ve done enough design work to have a really distinctive style of my own as far as cover layouts go. As far as logo and lettering design, it’s mostly based on the work of Ira Schnapp, Gaspar Saladino, Tom Orzechowski and other letterers I like, mixed with my own ideas.
PÓM: At what point in a project do you become involved? Do you get the script early on, or just the pencilled art with a list of text that needs to be added?
TK: As in most things involving the assembly line that is comics, it depends. Shelly Bond, my main DC editor, often sends me series proposals to read that she’s accepted and would like me to letter. That was the case with Fables, in which we both saw lots of potential, and I was very happy to sign up. Still going strong, and my current favourite regular project. Usually, though, I get the script and art for the first (and each) issue together, hopefully with a little extra time to think about how I might handle any unique lettering styles or aspects needed.
In the early days of a project I’m usually working over scans of the finished art. Later I might be working over scans of the un-inked pencils. When things really get behind, I might need to work over rough layouts. The plan is always to get several issues done before the project is scheduled for printing (or in the case of a one-shot, at least half the pages), but it doesn’t always work out that way. I know at some point in the process it will come down to, “we need these pages lettered as soon as possible!” Not a problem usually, as I can always stay ahead of the inkers and colourists. One nice thing about lettering is it takes the least amount of time of any step in the process. Something that does take extra time now is making corrections and re-writes, which used to be handled on-staff, but now is part of the computer- letterer’s job. Some writers and editors take unfair advantage of this by essentially editing or re-writing a comic after it’s been lettered. I’ve had jobs where the corrections/re-writes took longer than the original lettering.
PÓM: Besides Fables, what else are you working on at the moment?
TK: I hate this question, it makes me tired, but here’s a list. For DC I’m lettering Simon Dark and Batwoman. For DC/Vertigo I’m lettering Sandman: The Dream Hunters, Fables, Jack of Fables, House of Mystery, Greatest Hits, Age of Kali, Greendale (not started yet), and probably a few others I haven’t thought of that aren’t begun. For WildStorm/DC I’m lettering a new Top Ten series. For Marvel I’m lettering Avengers/Invaders and Eternals. For Steve Rude I’m lettering Nexus. For Radical I’m lettering Hercules, though it’s on hiatus now. For Top Shelf I’m lettering The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century, and will be doing design work for that as well. No covers or logos at the moment.
PÓM: You get to see the scripts for some of these comics, what, up to a year before the rest of us get to see them as finished work. Is it still exciting to read them like that, or has that faded in any way?
TK: Oh, it’s great fun to be nearly the first reader, but I generally prefer not to look ahead, just reading as I’m lettering. That way it’s more like a real comics experience. I will occasionally read ahead if I think there’s something I need to know for style reference. And you’re being too optimistic in your lead time. I’m usually getting script and art about three months before ship date with monthly comics, less when the book is running late. Graphic novels usually do have more lead time built in, at least in the beginning. On some I’ve lettered the entire thing more than a year before it’s printed. I began working on the The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier at least three years before it was released, maybe four, but that’s an extreme example.
PÓM: I believe Alan Moore brought you in very early for Promethea? Did this involve some of Alan’s legendary hours-long phone-calls?
TK: I got on-board with the ABC books early, but the phone calls were mostly about the cover designs I was working on for all the books rather than the stories. Alan rarely asks for any input on those, and in my opinion doesn’t need any. I did have lots of long phone calls with artist J.H. Williams III as we collaborated on the cover designs, and often discussed lettering style choices and other things involving the art we needed to work out, especially as the series went along and J.H. continued to experiment with different styles and mediums. Issue 32 was a marathon for all three of us, taking months to produce, and with lots of back and forth between Alan, J.H. and myself.
(an example of some of the stunning collision/fusion of artwork, lettering and writing in the final pages of Promethea #32 (which can be found in volume 5 of the graphic novel collection), written by Alan Moore, art by J.H. Williams III, letters by Todd Klein, published America’s Best Comics/DC)
PÓM: Were you responsible, then, for doing the embossed covers on the hardback editions of Promethea?
TK: If you mean the foil embossing on the actual cover boards, J.H. and I worked out the designs and he did the art. The same is true for the League books with Kevin O’Neill. The other ABC embosses were mostly picked up from existing art or logos inside the books or on the covers.
PÓM: Are there any nightmare scenarios for letterers that you’ve come across? Off the top of my head – and I’m completely guessing here, obviously – I’m thinking about things like there being no room left in the artwork for speech balloons, or text and dialogue so badly written that you really feel you need to correct it, or things like that?
TK: Probably the worst nightmare for me is ridiculously tight deadlines. Haven’t had any of those in a while, but some better forgotten involved computer-lettering a 24 page issue overnight, for a book that was due at the printer the next day. This was for WildStorm many years ago, and they managed to pull that trick off a few times on one book I lettered for them that shall remain nameless.
As for problems on individual pages, part of my job is finding a way to make it work. In the worst cases I’ve had to call an editor and ask for some copy to be cut, but that’s rare. And if I see something obviously wrong in the script I get, either spelling or grammar, I feel it’s part of my job to fix it, and I do. It usually goes through without comment.
PÓM: Have you ever been asked to letter something that you found was too objectionable to do? The language in comics has become a lot more robust, shall we say, in the past number of years, and it is after all you who has to write out the actual words, so I was wondering if you ever ran into problems there?
TK: In the early 1990s I was approached by Penthouse magazine to letter some pornographic comics for them. Would have paid very well, but I didn’t feel it was something I wanted to do. The samples they showed me were rather sleazy. Alan Moore’s Lost Girls probably has as much or more pornographic content as those, but it’s so much better written I had no problem accepting the assignment. I didn’t find the content offensive, though it’s not the sort of thing I would want to do a lot of. As for swear words, they’re just words, I don’t take them personally.
PÓM: There are two particularly outstanding pieces of lettering of yours I wanted to ask you about: the first one is issue #50 of Sandman, the Ramadan story; and the other is issue #23 of Promethea, where there is a double splash page consisting of just lettering in circles, in pretty much every language under the sun. There’s a little faded bubble over to the side that says, “God, I hope I’ve lettered this right…” – I’m guessing this is one of the very rare occasions when you intruded yourself into the comic you were working on. In both cases here, and particularly on the last issue of Promethea, #32, you really seemed to be working above and beyond what would usually be expected of a letterer, and actually becoming part of the artistic team, or is there a distinction between the two roles?
TK: Comics is almost always a team effort, with the exception of self-published comics where one person does everything. I’ve been a part of many, many such teams, and the ones that work best are those where everyone on the team communicates with everyone else, and everyone gets to have some input and contribute ideas and make suggestions about how to create the best possible comic story.
Nearly all the work I’ve done with Alan Moore has been of that type. On Promethea, J.H. Williams and I talked every few days, and Alan and I talked about once every two weeks. J.H. also talked to Alan a lot. It was a collaboration of the best kind, with everyone offering their best work. For the Promethea #23 pages, I was given a list of phrases by Alan, asked to get them translated into as many languages as possible (I did over 50), and J.H. gave me his layout idea for the pages, but the rest was up to me. I consider it a sort of graduate degree in comics lettering. Took several weeks, and was great fun. Issue #32 was more of a marathon, as we had to work out many technical issues to achieve Alan’s vision. Again, great fun, but exhausting.
(Todd’s flowing script, Gaiman’s elegant prose and Russell’s beautiful artwork combined in an Arabian Nights Fantasy which I think Sir Richard Burton would heartily approve of in the Sandman #50: Ramadan, published DC Vertigo and now available in over-sized glory in the third volume of Absolute Sandman)
On Sandman, Neil Gaiman and I talked fairly often in the beginning, but once the book got rolling, we were in such synch that it became less and less necessary. He told me what he wanted, I understood and loved his writing, and I think both our efforts benefited from that. As for the artists, some of them I talked to, some not. P. Craig Russell is an artist I’d long admired since he began in comics, and I knew his work well. Craig pencils in all the dialogue on his pencilled pages, so in some ways lettering him is easy. On issue 50, I felt a special caption style was called for to complement the Arabian Nights story and art, and I came up with one on my own. I did the first page as a sample, sent it to Craig, Neil and DC, and everyone loved it. So, there it was more a collaboration of kindred souls.
PÓM: Looking at the Awards page on your website, you really have won colossal amounts of awards for your work, particularly Eisner Awards, which are voted on by comics professionals. How do you feel when you win an award, and when you hear people (like me, for instance!) referring to you as the best letterer in the world?
TK: Winning awards is always gratifying and fun, even though I never think I’m going to win, to be honest. There are things I like about my work, but when I look at it I tend to see all the bits I wish I’d done better, and there are other fine letterers whose work I think is just as good, if not better, than mine. I’ve been very lucky to be in the right place and time to get as much attention as I have. Some letterers, like Gaspar Saladino for instance, who had innate talent well beyond mine for some things, never got those kudos, which is too bad. Still, winning is great, and I think if I can keep lettering at least a little higher profile by doing that, it’s a good thing.
PÓM: Where do you keep all your awards? Do you have them on a shelf in your studio, or what?
TK: Well, the plaques are hung up on the wall of my studio and the statues are on one of the bookshelves, mostly, with a few on a file cabinet.
PÓM: I believe you also do a little singing?
TK: I used to play guitar and sing songs I wrote, mostly for my own amusement, and record them in my living room in the 1970s and 80s. After I went freelance full-time, I had to mostly give it up due to lack of time, but did get back to it briefly in 2002, recording a few more tracks. There are two CDs on my website for the curious, with some audio samples. I’m well out of practice now, and my voice, never much to begin with, is going downhill, but I had a lot of fun with it. I’ve actually sold about 20 CDs, and no one has asked for their money back yet.
PÓM: Todd Klein, thank you very much indeed.
TK: You’re quite welcome!
FPI would like to thank both Todd Klein and Pádraig Ó Méalóid for sharing their time and thoughts with us. Todd, as regular readers will know, has his own website and blog where he often posts some fascinating articles on his work and other subjects which interest him. Pádraig’s LiveJournal can be found here and his special Alan Moore Glycon site, which often offers up many a lost treasure, can be found here.